The task ahead for Mario Caetano and his womens basketball players at Northern New Mexico College is not an enviable one.
The Eagles have an entirely new roster. That’s right, not a single player from the NAIA school in Española returned from last season.
That led Caetano, who took over the program midway through last season, to hit the recruiting trail hard looking for freshmen to build around for the future and junior college players that can help make the program competitive quickly.
“I kind of saw what I had to do,” he said. “I kind of got the feeling that most of the girls did not want to come back. I started early, hitting the road and recruiting, talking with coaches that I had connections with. I tried the best I could to bring in a competitive roster right away. I knew I needed a mature roster and I knew I needed some good freshmen to build on for the next four years.”
Melding those players into a cohesive group has understandably been a challenge thus far.
“We’re still trying to find our identity. Who we are, what we’re good at and what we’re bad at,” he said. “That’s not an excuse for our past couple of performances. In reality, it is tough. But we are getting better and I see improvement.”
The team has no seniors, but six juniors – three of whom came from South Mountain Community College in Phoenix.
“It’s an entire new team and an entire new coaching staff,” Caetano said. “We’re all still trying to figure it out. I don’t expect us to be the best team in the country right now, but so long as we continue to learn about each other and get better every day, we’ll be fine.”
The players understood coming in that the team is building for the future, he said.
“It’s like a brand new program,” Caetano said. “It’s hard to be successful right away. But as long as we understand the long-term goal of building a new culture of playing for each other, we’ll be okay.”
Already in the early part of the season, several players are standing out, with Haley Eaves (5 foot, 7 inches, Jr., G) looking strong by averaging 13.3 points a game.
And Zhane Lewis (5-11, Jr., P) is averaging 10 points a game.
Of the newcomers to college basketball, Ahmaya Smith (5-9, Fr., G) is showing potential at eight points.
“I like the group I have, they’re really competitive,” Caetano said. “They have a lot of fight in them.”
To speed the chemistry process, the players must leave their phones off when outside the bus on the road.
“They have to interact with each other,” Caetano said. “I want to make them talk to each other. And every night, they have a different roommate, not somebody they’re living with here. I want them to know something about everyone. Not just on the basketball floor.”
Still the process is likely to be slow, if steady.
“We’re taking our lumps early, but it will make us better,” Caetano said. “The pieces are there, we just need to connect the puzzles and that’s my job.”